A crazy futurist writes about crazy futurists

Arjen the doomsayerWarren Ellis’ Normal is a little story about the problem of being serious about the future.

As I often point out, most people in the futures game are basically in the entertainment industry: telling wonderful or frightening stories that allow us to feel part of a bigger sweep of history, reflect a bit, and then return to the present with the reassurance that we have some foresight. Relatively little future studies is about finding decision-relevant insights and then acting on it. It exists, but it is not the bulk of future-oriented people. Taking the future seriously might require colliding with your society as you try to tell it it is going the wrong way. Worse, the conclusions might tell you that your own values and goals are wrong.

Normal takes place at a sanatorium for mad futurists in the wilds of Oregon. The idea is that if you spend too much time thinking too seriously about the big and horrifying things in the future mental illness sets in. So when futurists have nervous breakdowns they get sent by their sponsors to Normal to recover. They are useful, smart, and dedicated people but since the problems they deal with are so strange their conditions are equally unusual. The protagonist arrives just in time to encounter a bizarre locked room mystery – exactly the worst kind of thing for a place like Normal with many smart and fragile minds – driving him to investigate what is going on.

As somebody working with the future, I think the caricatures of these futurists (or rather their ideas) are spot on. There are the urbanists, the singularitarians, the neoreactionaries, the drone spooks, and the invented professional divisions. Of course, here they are mad in a way that doesn’t allow them to function in society which softballs the views: singletons and Molochs are serious real ideas that should make your stomach lurch.

The real people I know who take the future seriously are overall pretty sane. I remember a documentary filmmaker at a recent existential risk conference mildly complaining that people where so cheerful and well-adapted: doubtless some darkness and despair would have made a far more compelling imagery than chummy academics trying to salvage the bioweapons convention. Even the people involved in developing the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine seem to have been pretty healthy. People who go off on the deep end tend to do it not because of The Future but because of more normal psychological fault lines. Maybe we are not taking the future seriously enough, but I suspect it is more a case of an illusion of control: we know we are at least doing something.

This book convinced me that I need to seriously start working on my own book project, the “glass is half full” book. Much of our research at FHI seems to be relentlessly gloomy: existential risk, AI risk, all sorts of unsettling changes to the human condition that might slurp us down into a valueless attractor asymptoting towards the end of time. But that is only part of it: there are potential futures so bright that we do not just need sunshades, but we have problems with even managing the positive magnitude in an intellectually useful way. The reason we work on existential risk is that we (1) think there is enormous positive potential value at stake, and (2) we think actions can meaningfully improve chances. That is no pessimism, quite the opposite. I can imagine Ellis or one of his characters skeptically looking at me across the table at Normal and accusing me of solutionism and/or a manic episode. Fine. I should lay out my case in due time, with enough logos, ethos and pathos to convince them (Muhahaha!).

I think the fundamental horror at the core of Normal – and yes, I regard this more as a horror story than a techno-thriller or satire – is the belief that The Future is (1) pretty horrifying and (2) unstoppable. I think this is a great conceit for a story and a sometimes necessary intellectual tonic to consider. But it is bad advice for how to live a functioning life or actually make a saner future.


The Annihilation Score as Satirical Sociology

Violin storeToday I read The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross during a flight. It is the sixth Laundry novel, and in many ways the weakest. But it might be the intellectually and satirically best.

The Laundry novels are a mix of horror, spy story, geekiness, and satire. This is both a reader-winning combination (transitions from one side of the mixture to another can provide intense contrast, and Stross can give readers a bit of everything) and a balancing problem: each story needs to maintain the right mixture, and the readers often have their own favourite ratios. The Annihilation Score goes further in the direction of satire, reducing the horror and geekiness fairly significantly. This no doubt makes many Laundry fans unhappy. Me too, to some extent: there is nothing more delightful than noticing wordplay based on obscure hermetica and computer science, or the distinctly unsettling implications of thinking through some of the metaphysical assumptions of the setting. However, I think Stross hit on something different in this novel: an important argument disguised as satire.

On the surface the novel suffers from bad pacing: the bulk of it is about management. Not intense action, but rather the issue of how to set up an office, from personnel management to furniture to keeping the funding body happy despite contradictory goals. There is plenty of agency-spotting, with numerous acronymical organisations criss-crossing the story with their interleaved agendas. And finally, in the last fifth, a climactic battle. Typically Laundry novels spend a lot of times establishing a mood and tension for a relatively brief finale where they get unleashed. The Annihilation Score takes this even further, but at least I did not feel much of a build-up. In fact, despite the pressure on the main character she comes across as almost a Westminster Mary Sue: she persists and succeeds at nearly everything, from turning what ought to be a social nightmare into a cozy core team, to handling unseen budgetary constraints.

However, on a deeper level this is not a horror story about inhuman entities from other dimensions threatening to invade our world and their misguided human servants. This is a horror story about the inhuman entity inhabiting Whitehall: government.

Taking jabs at the absurdity, stupidity and inhumanity of bureaucracy has been a staple in the Laundry books. What makes the Annihilation Score stand out is that it actually has a fairly well thought out argument and exposition of why. The basics are familiar from the earlier novels: the iron law of bureaucracy (framed here as the emergent instrumental goal of organisations to preserve themselves), Parkinson’s law, the Snafu principle, empire building, not invented here, in-group out-group dynamics, Something Must Be Done, and so on. The novel does a sociological dive into the internal culture of the subset of bureaucracy dealing with policing. Here there exists a strong ethos about what purpose it actually has, which both serves to recruit and advance people with a compatible mindset and actually maintain some mission focus. Presumably because it would be very noticeable if the police force began too drift too far from its necessary function; compare this with how some branches of academia are kept honest by constant interaction with an unyielding real world, and others diffuse into obscure absurdity since there are only social forces constraining them. But even when a purpose has an apparently clear meaning it can get subtly (or not so subtly) twisted. This is especially true at the top, where the constraints of external practical reality are weakest.

Stross examines the case where bureaucracy recognizes it has an out-of-context problem. Something important yet unknown is intruding, and clearly something must be done to handle it. The problem is of course that following the politician’s syllogism means that whatever fast and decisive action is taken is not going to be based on good knowledge. Worse, if the organisation is centred on dealing with something Very Important like national security it will hence be (1) extremely motivated to do it, (2) discount signals from unimportant (as described by its own value system) organisations or sources. A not so subtle analogy to the Annihilation Score is government handling of many emerging technologies such as encryption. Internal expertise is lacking not just on the technology itself and its full implications, but there is also a lack of expertise in judging the consequences of different actions and expertise in recognizing this kind of expertise.

This is where I think the novel actually succeeds: it plays out a satirical scenario, but the parts are all-too-familiar. Well-meaning people work hard to ensure something agreed to be good, and the result is Moloch. The Sleeper in the Pyramid is not half as scary as the Dweller in Whitehall. Because the later is real.

A clean well-lighted challenge: those eyes

On Extropy-chat my friend Spike suggested a fun writing challenge:

“So now I have a challenge for you.  Write a Hemmingway-esque story (or a you-esque story if you are better than Papa) which will teach me something, anything.  The Hemmingway story has memorable qualities, but taught me nada.  I am looking for a short story that is memorable and instructive, on any subject that interests you. Since there is so much to learn in this tragically short life, the shorter the story the better, but it should create memorable images like Hemmingway’s Clean, it must teach me something, anything. “

Here is my first attempt. (V 1.1, slightly improved from my list post and with some links). References and comments below.

Those eyes

“Ah, yes, customers.”
“Cannot live with them, cannot live without them.”
“So, who?”
“The optics guys.”
“Those are the worst.”
“I thought that was the security guys.”
“Maybe. What’s the deal?”
Antireflective coatings. Dirt repelling.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Some of the bots need to have diffraction spread, some should not. Ideally determined just when hatching.”
“Hatching? Self-assembling bots?”
“Yes. Can not do proper square root index matching in those. No global coordination.”
“Crawly bugbots?”
“Yes. Do not even think about what they want them for.”
“I was thinking of insect eyes.”
“No. The design is not faceted. The optics people have some other kind of sensor.”
“Have you seen reflections from insect eyes?”
“If you shine a flashlight in the garden at night you can see jumping spiders looking back at you.”
“That’s their tapeta, like a cat’s. I was talking about reflections from the surface.”
“I have not looked, to be honest.”
“There aren’t any glints when light glance across fly eyes. And dirt doesn’t stick.”
“They polish them a lot.”
“Sure. Anyway, they have nipples on their eyes.”
“Nipple like nanostructures. A whole field of them on the cornea.”
“Ah, lotus coatings. Superhydrophobic. But now you get diffraction and diffraction glints.”
“Not if they are sufficiently randomly distributed.”
“It needs to be an even density. Some kind of Penrose pattern.”
“That needs global coordination. Think Turing pattern instead.”
“Some kind of tape?”
“That’s Turing machine. This is his last work from ’52, computational biology.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It uses two diffusing signal substances: one that stimulates production of itself and an inhibitor, and the inhibitor diffuses further.”
“So a blob of the first will be self-supporting, but have a moat where other blobs cannot form.”
“Yep. That is the classic case. It all depends on the parameters: spots, zebra stripes, labyrinths, even moving leopard spots and oscillating modes.”
“All generated by local rules.”
“You see them all over the place.”
“Insect corneas?”
“Yes. Some Russians catalogued the patterns on insect eyes. They got the entire Turing catalogue.”
“Changing the parameters slightly presumably changes the pattern?”
“Indeed. You can shift from hexagonal nipples to disordered nipples to stripes or labyrinths, and even over to dimples.”
“Local interaction, parameters easy to change during development or even after, variable optics effects.”
“Stripes or hexagons would do diffraction spread for the bots.”

References and comments

Blagodatski, A., Sergeev, A., Kryuchkov, M., Lopatina, Y., & Katanaev, V. L. (2015). Diverse set of Turing nanopatterns coat corneae across insect lineages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(34), 10750-10755.

My old notes on models of development for a course, with a section on Turing patterns. There are many far better introductions, of course.

Nanostructured chitin can do amazing optics stuff, like the wings of the Morpho butterflyP. Vukusic, J.R. Sambles, C.R. Lawrence, and R.J. Wootton (1999). “Quantified interference and diffraction in single Morpho butterfly scales“. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 266 (1427): 1403–11.

Another cool example of insect nano-optics: Land, M. F., Horwood, J., Lim, M. L., & Li, D. (2007). Optics of the ultraviolet reflecting scales of a jumping spider. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 274(1618), 1583-1589.

One point Blagodatski et al. make is that the different eye patterns are scattered all over the insect phylogenetic tree: since it is easy to change parameters one can get whatever surface is needed by just turning a few genetic knobs (for example in snake skins or number of digits in mammals). I found a local paper looking at figuring out phylogenies based on maximum likelihood inference from pattern settings. While that paper was pretty optimistic on being able to figure out phylogenies this way, I suspect the Blagodatski paper shows that they can change so quickly that this will only be applicable to closely related species.

It is fun to look at how the Fourier transform changes as the parameters of the pattern change:
Leopard spot pattern

Random spot pattern

Zebra stripe pattern

Hexagonal dimple pattern

In this case I move the parameter b up from a low value to a higher one. At first I get “leopard spots” that divide and repel each other (very fun to watch), arraying themselves to fit within the boundary. This produces the vertical and horizontal stripes in the Fourier transform. As b increases the spots form a more random array, and there is no particular direction favoured in the transform: there is just an annulus around the center, representing the typical inter-blob distance. As b increases more, the blobs merge into stripes. For these parameters they snake around a bit, producing an annulus of uneven intensity. At higher values they merge into a honeycomb, and now the annulus collapses to six peaks (plus artefacts from the low resolution).